Trump's immigration enforcement plan misses the big picture
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In his first months in office, President Trump proposed sweeping changes to the immigration enforcement system including building a Southern border wall, bringing local forces into detention and deportation, and adding thousands of detention beds. He has asked Congress for a $3 billion down payment for the plan which will ultimately add tens of billions dollars to what is already historically high spending on immigration enforcement.  

The President’s plan shackles taxpayers with an expensive tab without telling them how any of this will improve border security or the lives of Americans.


Experts have long-debated how to measure successful border security, but almost no one thinks the wall will be effective. Even the president’s backers take issue with it: Brandon Judd, head of the Border Patrol Union which supported Trump said: “We do not need a wall along the entire 2,000 miles of border.” Texas Congressman Will Hurd, a Republican, called it “the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.” Initial government estimates put a $21 billion price on the wall but new data given to Congress shows it would cost at least $69 billion — extraordinary sums for something that will not work.


The president also wants to hire 15,000 more enforcement agents and expand immigration detention. The problem with hiring more border agents is that the agency has not been able to maintain the number of agents for which it is currently funded due to poor retention rates and the lack of qualified candidates.

More agents might put more people into removal proceedings, but for the immigration system to operate more efficiently — and more fairly — what we actually need are more immigration judges to reduce backlogs that keep cases bottlenecked for years. Those lengthy backlogs were created by a decade of overfunding for enforcement and underfunding of judges — the same problem that now ails President Trump’s plan.

Taxpayers should know that the federal government is already devoting record resources to immigration enforcement: $20 billion is the annual immigration enforcement budget, more than is spent on the combined cost of all other federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, U.S. Marshals, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. With border apprehensions at a 40-year low, Congress should question why these new expensive proposals are necessary.  

Perhaps most indefensible is the administration’s goal to stop every border crosser and allow no one to pass undetected into the country.  The Republican Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Mike McCaul called achieving a 100-percent seal of the border “unachievable and unrealistic.” Anyone who has visited the border knows that mountainous regions and vast sections of the Rio Grande make patrolling or constructing a wall almost impossible. Sealing the border is nonsense.

Instead of asking for more enforcement money, the president should comply with the border mandate passed last year that directs the Department of Homeland Security to complete an assessment of border security and establish metrics for success. Congress should insist the agency complete that step before granting more funds to enforcement. 

Immigration enforcement is necessary for our system to work properly, but the past decade has shown that enforcement alone — even at extremely high levels — yields diminishing returns. What America needs is reform that addresses the other side of the equation: the legal immigration system. That system has not been updated for more than a quarter century, leaving businesses and families still applying for visas under old quotas that do not meet the demand for immigrants. Because the system does not currently provide enough visas, agriculture and other industries resort to hiring unauthorized workers.  The president and Congress should increase legal immigration quotas rather than fund this enforcement plan.

Far more effective and far less costly than the president’s plan would be a nationwide expansion of the electronic employment verification system which would make unauthorized work nearly impossible and dramatically reduce illegal immigration. Existing problems in the current verification system, E-Verify, would have to be fixed. And of course, electronic verification can only be nationalized if visa numbers are also increased to meet the country’s labor force needs and if the unauthorized work force is given an opportunity to legalize their status.

If these interconnected parts of the immigration system are fixed together, they will greatly benefit the United States and do far more to improve the lives of Americans than the president’s costly and unworkable enforcement plan.

Gregory Chen is the director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.